Goodbye to Homestuck, the Most Elaborate Webcomic You’ve Never Heard Of
Seven years, 8,000 pages, one man’s vision. Homestuck was a cultural phenomenon that had just the right amount of success.
On April 13, 2016, exactly seven years after he started the most ambitious and riveting webcomic on the internet, Andrew Hussie posted Homestuck's final update.
Since the story's inception, millions of readers have clung onto every last panel, text conversation, Flash animation, and interactive game that made Homestuck the unique, strange, and utterly engrossing subcultural phenomenon it was. It will never be replicated: both in its length and depth, but also for the way it both mirrored and rejected the web culture that evolved alongside it.
Though it's difficult to explain Homestuck's plot (I tried to for The Atlantic here), the barebones: Homestuck is an exploration of creation and destruction, both triggered and brought to fruition by internet friends.
It's about 8,126 panels long, which doesn't account for the sometimes thousand-words-plus scrolls of text attached to a single "page" or the time-consuming RPGs that provide pivotal plot information.
The story unfolds over generations, including different universes and timelines of the same generations, and folds in everything from religion to bronies to Hussie himself, who serves as a punchline as well as a player.
Even having read it from start to finish, I cannot say I totally understand what happened at its end, or even most of what happened along the way. But in the scope of Homestuck itself, understanding the narrative is but one part of the puzzle. Focusing on plot mechanisms and character resolution alone misses the greater impact and importance of the endeavor—on setting a precedence for digital storytelling that nothing has been able to follow.
Most serialized webcomics or web narratives are meant for passive consumption: the author/artist creates it, posts it, shares it within a somewhat regular timeline, and fans enjoy what they're given. This has changed in the past half-decade, as serialized digital media experiments including Jennifer Egan's "Black Box" (in which she updated the story via The New Yorker's Twitter) and Joshua Cohen's PCKWCK (an homage to none other than serialized master Charles Dickens, wherein fans threw out suggestions via an in-page chat and you could watch Cohen write), have added social media and/or digital media engagement to the aims of their project.
To most media outlets, let alone media audiences, Homestuck might as well not exist
Generally, these kinds of curated media projects and products have been designed to start small and niche, and then bloom outward and "go public" with the help of curious digital strangers.
This is how (true?) stories like Zola's (a sordid saga of sex work, deception, and maybe murder, all tweeted out) and the McDonald's milkshake guy (a man going through the worst fast food order of his life, also tweeted out) became viral hits. It's how #tooreal-to-be-actually-real ideas like thigh gap jewelry and the laptop selfie stick take off. These ideas either pander to or invite commentary from the outside.
Moving specifically to publishing, shortform webcomics like Hark! A Vagrant, longform webcomics like Emily Carroll's, and single topic Tumblrs and Twitters like Slaughterhouse 90210, @SoSadToday, and @ShitMyDadSays (remember that?) jumped into more "prestigious" mediums like books and TV once they had amassed enough attention online.
Not so for Homestuck.
Long, incredibly confusing, and with little to no mass or indie appeal, Homestuck was created and consumed only by its fans, neither sustained or exploited by any kind of media interest.
Hussie hasn't totally cloistered Homestuck from expansion. It has multiple online stores, a video game, which launched on Kickstarter and raised almost two and a half million dollars, is on its way, and he also oversees two companion webcomics (one of which has, okay, companion books).
But none of those things can replicate the native digital medium brilliance of Homestuck itself. Its only second home is perhaps Tumblr, where it's consistently one of the most popular names on Fandometrics's "Web Stuff" ranking and where I've engaged with Homestuck fandom the most. Some of the site's many fan artists have even become Homestuck "staff" of sorts, contributing artwork and music to the most recent updates.
As the years went on, Homestuck's content became more sophisticated, both in artistic and technical execution. Earlier Flash animations were hosted on Newgrounds, still the premiere source for Flash animation work on the internet; now they're embedded as high quality YouTube videos. Earlier artwork leaned on mostly black-and-white, sprite-esque art—quite literally, MS Paint adventures. The sequences in the final update look straight out of a high budget animated film.
Here's where Homestuck really stands alone: All of this happened only with support from its core fan community.
Homestuck crowdsourced many of its fundamental story features from Hussie's on-site forums, and he's gone from being basically a one-man operation to recruiting many of his fans into the story itself. And, while you'd think a webcomic that can raise $2.5 million would be more popular, not to mention how innovative and masterful its narrative is (Homestuck does the best treatment of time travel I've ever seen), it has instead stubbornly remained a sub-internet phenomenon.
There is no middle man between the creator and his creation, no means of production that isn't directly controlled by him or his fans.
There is no central industry or funding supporting Homestuck. The mainstream writeups of Homestuck are spare; The Daily Dot has covered it several times, while other "geek" culture-focused sites like CNN's Geek Out!, Wired, and Polygon have done one-off features.
But still—that Homestuck has gotten so big, both in the digital and physical worlds (a visit to any anime convention will feature swarms of Homestucks), raised millions of dollars, and become a cornerstone of digital fandom without attracting proportionate media attention is astonishing to think about. To most media outlets, let alone media audiences, Homestuck might as well not exist.
Homestuck is over, but its fandom community will only grow outward, slowly exploding and expanding from its original beginning. Seven years ago, Homestuck was a patience-testing anomaly. Seven years later, true to Hussie's painstaking pacing and careful planning for the end, it still is, but it's left in its wake a fearsome legacy, a true cult gem in a culture that generally doesn't allow for such things anymore. Who will be the next creator to step into its sizable shoes? Who will so seamlessly and innovatively blend digital culture, technologies, and relationships into the full breadth of digital expression? Or perhaps, such a thing is already here; and like with Homestuck, it is up to us to find it.